Less than a year ago, parents were buried under an avalanche of studies that concluded kids don’t make you happy. In fact, these studies showed that people raising kids reported lower levels of happiness — life satisfaction, marital satisfaction, and mental well-being — than their childless counterparts.
Oh, and that lower level of happiness? Never. Goes. Away.
Okay, but now out of the U.K., the Journal of Happiness Studies reports that not only do kids not lower their parents’ level of happiness, they actually raise it — a little bit with the first kid. Even more with the second. And (I’m looking at you, Baby Earl!) significantly more with the third!
There’s a catch, though.
This child-triggered happiness boost is true for married couples only (and British ones at that).
Luis Angeles, who authored the study, looked at 9,000 households over a 15-year period. Taken as a group, indeed, kids brought down their parents’ satisfaction level. But teasing apart the relationship status of the adults, he found married couples with three kids were the happiest.
Nurtureshock co-author (and, can we assume, happy dad?) Po Bronson writes about this latest counter-counter-intuitive study on parents and happiness for Newsweek. And here’s his take on why married parents are happier and why unmarried partners or single parents, etc., report lower levels of satisfaction.
Perhaps what’s driving this data is less about kids and more about expectations. The vast majority of people who get married (not all!) want to have kids in their family. Doing so meets that expectation, and happiness is the result. By contrast, people do not expect to get divorced, and most single parents (with some important exceptions) didn’t plan to end up that way. Happiness might go down, but it’s wrong to suggest that kids caused the drop in happiness. It makes more sense that life not going to plan is causing the drop, and having kids when life doesn’t go according to plan makes getting back on track even more complicated.
I think Bronson could be on to something. What I’d like to see, though, is the same kind of analysis for North American households, particularly American. We know that more U.S. kids than ever are being born to unmarried parents and that not all those unmarried parents are having “oops” kids. They’re planning their families just like those who walked down the aisle. Can we drill down in the data to see if it really is the planning that’s driving the happiness?
Or perhaps it’s the committed partnership. Or maybe there’s simply happiness when you can share the load. (Like this guy says, you can’t always count on outside help!)
I’ve been both an unmarried and a married parent – same partner the whole time — and, truly, very little has changed following our status shift. In fact, I considered myself married even before I actually was … sometime during my first pregnancy, I suppose. My point is, I think there are unmarried parents and unmarried parents, you know?
Also, that third-kid thing is fascinating. I’d love to know whether the happiness factor simply holds steady beyond three or actually plummets. Michelle Duggar? Care to weigh in?
Bonnie Rochman over at Double X emailed Angeles about the fourth kid and here’s what she wrote:
Although folks with four or more kids have what the happiness researcher, Luis Angeles from the University of Glasgow, called “an important positive happiness effect” in an e-mail to me, the largest “happiness effect” is attributed to people with three children.
Hardly scientific, but let’s take a poll: are you happier with kids than before you had them (can you even remember life before kids?)? How many do you have? What do you think of this study (and happiness studies in general)?